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FIRST PERSON | Curt Ellis on How Docs Like 'Weight of the Nation' Are Making America Healthier

By Curt Ellis | Indiewire June 1, 2012 at 10:28AM

FIRST PERSON | Curt Ellis on How Docs Like 'Weight of the Nation' Are Making America Healthier
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'The Weight of the Nation'
Jessica Dimmock/courtesy of HBO 'The Weight of the Nation'
Not long after I graduated from college, I co-created the 2007 documentary "King Corn," working with my cousin Aaron Woolf (director/producer) and my best friend Ian Cheney (co-producer) to tell the story of one tiny acre of grain and its fate in America’s big food system.

It’s been four years since I’ve watched our film in full (though my parents tell me they still enjoy it). One image has stuck with me more than other during that time, the shot right before the closing credits: a high-angle wide captured by Aaron from atop a grain bin, of Ian and me standing on the edge of our empty field, surveying the square of black dirt that was left after we trucked our harvest to the elevator.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis in 'King Corn'
Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis in 'King Corn'

We had spent our year, it turned out, growing 10,000 pounds of fast food. Enough feed for 4,000 corn-fed hamburgers; enough starch to make the corn syrup for 57,000 cans of soda. It was a vast accomplishment and an incredible amount of corn we had grown -- but we weren’t proud of where our harvest would go.

The food we grew in "King Corn" left our farm to fuel an epidemic of obesity vividly captured in HBO’s new series "The Weight of the Nation" (which you can now watch online). The statistics have largely worsened since our film came out: two in three Americans are overweight, one in three is obese, and one in two of our children of color is expected to develop Type II diabetes during their lifetimes. “Diabetes follows obesity as night follows day,” as Thomas Friedman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains in the film. We’re already spending $147 billion treating diet-related diseases each year -- a figure that is expected to reach $344 billion by 2018.

Watching "The Weight of the Nation" is not exactly an uplifting experience. How can it be? The series explores the link between poverty and obesity (of the 10 fattest states, nine are also among the poorest), and compares the $220 million the USDA spends annually on nutrition education with the $30 billion the food industry spends each year on advertising. The problems, as the film makes clear, are mighty.

But if I’ve learned anything in the five years since our film "King Corn" came out, it’s that the solutions to our nation’s problems of food and health are mighty, too -- and those solutions can be fueled by film.

'The Weight of the Nation'
Jessica Dimmock/HBO 'The Weight of the Nation'

Films have a unique ability to provoke empathy and motivate audiences to take action. Viewers respond extra viscerally to stories about food -- something the print journalist Upton Sinclair noted when his slaughterhouse exposé "The Jungle" came out in 1906: “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

"The Weight of the Nation" draws in its audience with personal stories like that of Sofia, a talented and likeable 14-year-old dancer who learns that the dark ring around her neck is a sign of insulin resistance and impending Type II diabetes. Statistics reinforce the universality of Sofia’s experience and the urgency of addressing the problem: HBO quotes research from the Bogulusa Heart Study showing that 77% of subjects who were obese as children stayed obese as adults. Still, it’s the human voices that best motivate the audience to take action, like the school nurse who breaks down crying in fear for her students: “They are our future... they need us... they need us to care.”

Foundations and philanthropists have come to recognize the emotional power of film as a change-making tool every bit as important as researching, lobbying and community organizing. The distribution of "King Corn" was underwritten by partners like the Fledgling Fund and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; "The Weight of the Nation" received support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Kaiser Permanente. Savvy funders like these don’t see their support as “giving money away” -- they’re looking for the initiative that, dollar-for-dollar, will give them the greatest impact their philanthropic investment can buy. And film, they’ve decided, is sometimes just that.

This article is related to: Television, TV Features, HBO , The Weight of the Nation, King Corn, First Person, Filmmaker Toolkit






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